Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Evaluating Geoscience Students' Spatial Thinking Skills in a Multi-Institutional Classroom Study

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Evaluating Geoscience Students' Spatial Thinking Skills in a Multi-Institutional Classroom Study

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Geoscientists are quick to describe the important role that spatial skills play in their work, from making observations in the field to interpreting abstract spatial representations of multivariate data (e.g., Libarkin and Brick, 2002; Titus and Horsman, 2009; Pibum et al., 2011; Liben and Titus, 2012; Manduca and Kastens, 2012). The ability to visualize spatial relations-such as object shapes, relative locations, and how these change over time-is a fundamental skill necessary to understand and reason about geoscience concepts. This skill is also necessary to communicate effectively with diagrams that are used pervasively in geoscience and other STEM disciplines. This conclusion comes from both long-term longitudinal studies (e.g., Shea et al., 2001) and small-scale laboratory studies (e.g., Hegarty et al., 2009). Faculty members frequently describe students' difficulty with spatial visualization as one of the barriers to success in geoscience courses (e.g., Reynolds et al., 2006; Rapp et al., 2007; Riggs and Balliet, 2009; Titus and Horsman, 2009). Research in Engineering (Sorby, 2009) shows that curriculum aimed at helping students improve their spatial skills can have a dramatic effect in improving success in courses and in retaining students in the major. There is also some evidence that suggests that students need to attain a threshold level of competence-but not mastery-in spatial thinking in order to succeed in undergraduate STEM programs (Uttal and Cohen, 2012). Thus, it is critically important to understand what spatial skills are fundamental to the geosciences and how best to develop those skills in our students. This research is aimed at the first step: developing our understanding of the role of spatial thinking in geoscience education.

Mental rotation has received significant attention in the cognitive science literature since Shepard and Metzler's (1971) study laying out the argument for an analog-like mental rotation process. In this study, subjects were asked whether two images represented the same object, with one rotated relative to the other, or mirror-image objects. The authors found that the time it took subjects to confirm that two objects were the same increased linearly with the angular difference between the objects, thus suggesting that subjects were solving each problem by rotating a representation of the object in the diagram. Subsequent studies have investigated the effect of gender and age differences in mental rotation (e.g., Vandenburg and Kuse 1978; Jansen and Heil, 2010), learning effects on mental rotation (e.g., Newcombe et al., 1983; Uttal et al., 2013), and the neural basis of mental rotation (e.g., Zacks, 2008).

Perhaps as a result of this attention, mental rotation tests have commonly been used as proxies for spatial reasoning ability. Yet spatial reasoning is not a single ability. Converging recent findings in cognitive science-from cognitive psychology, linguistic psychology, and neuropsychology-argue that a significantly more diverse skill set is required to cover the breadth of spatial thinking. Chatterjee (2008), for example, proposes a basic typology of four classes of spatial visualization skills. Briefly, these four classes involve spatial relations within objects (e.g., the orientation of the c-axis within a quartz crystal or the slope of a cross bed) and relations between objects (e.g., the relative locations of outcrops or the orientation of bedding relative to metamorphic foliation), with static and dynamic versions of each of those categories. As a result of the research emphasis on rotation, the majority of the research on spatial skills in the context of STEM education has focused on 2D to 3D visualization and mental transformations (rotation and folding). Only a small body of work in cognitive science of education has studied any of the other geoscience-relevant spatial skills (e.g., Kastens and Ishikawa, 2006).

One example of a spatial skill that is used widely in geology is visualizing penetrative relations, such as imagining the interior of an object. …

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